The last original song Jim Steinman would ever write for Bonnie Tyler (by track order), “Rebel without a Clue” is at once both a very Steinman song and a very weird Steinman song. On the weird side, a huge percentage of the song is instrumental, there are some weirdly abrupt transition moments that almost make it sound edited down, and it has multiple pop culture references. However, it’s also an eight-and-a-half-minute-long epic filled with his usual choir-style backing vocals, the lightning-speed drum machines that (unfortunately) characterize much of his ’80s work, and the piano cascades that so often accompany his most “rock” work.
The song opens with a few big drum crashes from Jim Bralower that are then joined by Sid McGinnes’s and Eddie Martinez’s guitars. Larry Fast’s synth, Steve Buslowe’s bass, the drum machine, and Roy Bittan’s piano all break in, creating a very ’80s but great sound bed that isn’t quite as big and noisy as “Ravishing.” And then most of it cuts away, leaving just the drum machine, bass, and synthesizer as Bonnie Tyler begins her vocals. The chorus starts by slowing down and adding a lead guitar, then transitions to a faster version with the piano and backing vocals joining in before finally going back to that intro sound with the backing vocals added. The second verse adds more prominent synthesizers and backing vocals to Tyler. The second time through the chorus is essentially the same as the first. Then we get a great multi-part bridge that calls to mind “Stark Raving Love”–it starts with some great guitar from Martinez, goes to a piano-synth breakdown, then transitions to a high-speed drum-and-guitar-led version of that intro hook again before we get another, slightly louder version of the chorus. Then there is a piano-synth-and-drum-machine outro that frankly continues on for a rather long time for no reason.
Lyrically, this is a deeper song than it first appears. It’s five years before Tom Petty would make the phrase “rebel without a clue” commonplace and that’s some typical Steinman wordplay based on an idiom. It’s something of a commentary on the idea of being a “lone wolf” rebel, saying that there’s a consequence to being that lone wolf for the people around you. The singer is trying to be the right kind of rebel but is “a shot in the dark without you/A rebel without a clue/Rebel without a clue/I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do/Standing on the corner in my boots and my leather/A little over the edge, a little under the weather.” She still has the trappings of rebellion but her heartbreak is overpowering it, because underneath that image she is still human. It almost reads like the other party’s response to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”–the painful result of committing to someone who is more committed to an idea of themselves than to you.
In a continuing theme for me, the heavier sound of this song suits Bonnie Tyler well. In this one, I even really like the dynamics she gets in the different parts of the chorus versus not just each other but the verses. The backing vocals still sound excellent, and there are some nice little touches in them that sound to me like Rundgren (though admittedly I am guessing).
Overall, while it’s a bit longer than it needs to be and definitely imperfect, “Rebel without a Clue” is probably my favorite Steinman song for Bonnie Tyler. I remember when I first heard these songs years ago that I liked all of the Secret Dreams and Forbidden Fire songs better than the Faster than the Speed of Night songs, and that’s no longer true, but I do like the overall sound of them better–while it’s definitely more of its time with the drum machines and synthesizers, it’s also just got more going on in a way that I enjoy. All of them end up having some flaws and some charms, but “Rebel without a Clue” does the best job of delivering on the promise that “Ravishing” had from its first notes. It kind of feels like an evolution of “Stark Raving Love,” which is interesting since “Holding out for a Hero” ends the album by being a more direct evolution of that track.
- I’ve never been able to place exactly what it is, but there is something odd to me about the way Bonnie Tyler pronounces “darling.” I feel like that’s the only time her Welsh accent ever comes through to me.
- Both times right after the background singers finish with the “Rebel without a clue–ooh” part, it so sounds to me like there is a jump cut to the next note. It’s a weirdly sudden transition to me both times.
- “I know just when to sulk and I know just how to pose” so neatly fits the format of “Making Love out of Nothing at All” that it just jumps out at me that he has to have written it for that song.
- I love Eddie Martinez. Todd Rundgren’s absence as a guitarist is so clear after Bat out of Hell, with just a few exceptions, and Martinez just fills that role nicely. Rundgren obviously is more than a guitarist, but it’s good at least to have that part of his Bat out of Hell role filled so well at this point.
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